Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Secret Services: Section Zero

Now we come to a Secret Service that had--albeit someone indirectly--a significant influence on my own work.

Back in the heady days before the dot-com bust, all sorts of ambitious plans were floated, and one of them was Gorilla Comics. The idea was that a capitalized internet startup would fund a raft of creator-owned comics by some of the best writers and artists in comics--Busiek, Waid, Perez, Wieringo, etc. Sadly, the startup was a nonstarter, and the titles already in production were left without a home. With their funding evaporated, the creator's ended up self-funding and publishing what they had through Image Comics. Most of the titles only ran for a few issues each, but they offered tantalizing glimpses of what might have been.

One of those titles, and the one that resonated most with me as a reader, was Karl Kesel's and Tom Grummett's Section Zero.

What is Section Zero? Well, according to the inside cover of the first issue, there's no such thing...
There is no Section Zero.
Section Zero isn't a secret section of the United Nation's charter. It does not perpetually fund a team of experts and adventurers to investigate the fantastic and unknown. The idea that this "team" looks into such things as UFOs, Monsters, Lost Civilizations, Time Travel, Ancient Gods, and still-living Dinosaurs is no more than an urban legend. After all, none of these things exist.

Here's how Kesel described the outfit in an interview at the time:
The team is led by the smartest woman in the world. Her name is Doc Challenger. She belongs to a long lineage of adventurers. Her right hand man is Sam Wildman, who’s our loveable rogue character. Everything comes effortlessly to Doc Challenger and everything is a struggle for Sam. He can’t walk across the street without getting beat up by ninjas. That’s the sort of life he leads. Adding spice to the relationship is that they are ex-husband and wife. As the series progresses, we’ll learn more about the backstory there. There’s also a childlike alien being named Tesla who has vast, vast, vast powers but, thank God, he only has the mentality of a 6-year-old, otherwise he’d be running the world. We also have a 14-year-old Cambodian boy who has one of those cursed tattoos. You know all about those! If he rubs this bug tattoo on his arm, he becomes a bug boy character for exactly one day, so his name’s the 24 Hour Bug. He gets a big bug head and these big bug arms grow out of his back. Obviously, he’s not really thrilled with this power. It’s not a power that really wins the girls. That’s kinda where we start and we move off from there. There’s a few other members who’ll join the team as the 6-issue mini-series progresses. It’s one of those stories that starts out pretty small. There’s some sort of animal or creature killing sheep in the Australian Outback, and they go to investigate this. But as it often happens in comics, this is a small pebble that creates massive ripples. By the end of the mini-series, nothing is the same.
Elsewhere, Kesel has talked a bit more about the origins of the idea. Early last year I mentioned how, while looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon these interesting comments Kessel made a few years ago on something called Monster Blog Mailbox:
"Twice I've tried to interest Marvel in series that would feature these monsters and misfits. The first was the Marvelmen— a Challengers of the Unknown-type group who fought giant monsters. The second was a Giant-Man pitch that would have had him involved with adventures so out-there that even his fellow super-heroes didn't believe him— in other words, tall tales (appropriate for a giant, I thought) or Tales to Astonish— and a lot of the stories would have involved the Marvel monsters. I actually wrote and got paid for a plot to the Giant-Man story before Marvel decided it wasn't really their cup of tea.
And then, in response to another reader's comments, he goes on to say...
1) The Marvelmen would have had their origins in the early 60s, allowing me to do period stories, but would have also had a modern version of the team. I recycled this approach when Tom Grummett and I created “Section Zero.” As for art— hard to say. I think a lot of artists today would do killer versions of the classic Marvel monsters, and I'd love to see 'em, so maybe there would be some way to set up a comic with a lead story by one recurring artist and self-contained back-ups by a rotating roster. If there ever was a Marvelmen comic. Which there probably won't be.

2) I created the Marvelmen in 89 or 90. I was trying to ride the coat-tails of Marvel's Monster Masterworks trade paperback, and even pitched the idea to the editor of that book— Marc McLaurin. With the assumption that the only Marvel monster stories most readers would be familiar with would be the ones in that trade paperback, the Marvelmen were characters from stories reprinted there: Lewis Conrad from TABOO, the scientist from SPORR, and Chan Liuchow from FIN FANG FOOM. There was also one MarvelWOMAN, but I created her new since I didn't know of a Marvel monster story where a woman was the hero. (Are there any?)

(Interestingly, this prefigures much that I dig about Agents of Atlas, as well as covering much the same ground as Roger Stern's similar concept "Monster Hunters", which came in between.)

In an author's note in the back pages of Section Zero #1, Kesel adds another bit of detail, that in itself is even more telling.
"Then I noticed--about thirty years after the fact--that the [Fantastic Four] were a natural, creative outgrowth of the Challengers [of the Unknown]. And I thought, well, what if one actually did evolve into the other?"
And it's there that the book's essential charm, at least for me, can be found. This kind of metafictional play, encoding the history of genres inside genre stories, are my bread and butter. (More about this in a moment.)

The original members of Section Zero, who had to contend with "atomic power, giant insects, [and] little green men", were Everest Pike, Sarina Ursari, "Gorgeous" Georges Seine, and Bernie Cork. As another character says of them, "Those four faced the fantastic, and unknown... yet none of them had any special powers!"

By the 1970s, the lineup of the team had changed. Everest Pike still lead the group, but he'd been joined by Tele Moteka, Sargasso, and Jesse Presley (who seems oddly familiar...).

By the 1980s, Tele Moteka was in charge of a team that consisted of Johnny Colossus, Artifax the mechanical man, and A.J. Keeler.

By 2000, the team consisted of Dr. Titania "Doc" Challenger, Samuel Wildman, the alien Tesla, and Thom Talesi, the 24-Hour Bug.

This kind of metafictional "genre history as fictional backstory" was not new with Section Zero, of course, far from it. In fact, Kesel's friend and Gorilla Comics studio-mate Kurt Busiek had previously done something very similar with his Astro City, and in particular with the First Family.

Patriarch Dr. Augustus Furst, scientist and adventurer, first searched the world for adventure and knowledge with his brother Julius Furst in the 1950s. In the 1960s Augustus Furst adopted the twin offspring of his ex-wife, who had inherited from their mother the ability to control alien energies. Together the four become world famous adventurers, known as the First Family. In time, the adoptive daughter Natalie went on to marry Rex, the reptilian son of one of the First Family's greatest enemies, and sometime later their daughter Astra was born. And so on...

Around that same time, Kesel and his Section Zero collaborator Tom Grummett did a similar take on a Kirbyesque quartet of adventurers with Challengers of the Fantastic.

The book was part of the second "Amalgam Comics" intercompany crossover, in which DC Comics and Marvel Comics "merged" their titles for a single month, producing books featuring characters like Super Soldier (Captain American merged with Superman) and Dark Claw (Wolverine and Batman). Challengers of the Fanastic were, naturally, the Challengers of the Unknown merged with the Fantastic Four. The Challengers in this merged universe were were scientist Reed "Prof" Richards, SHIELD agent Susan "Ace" Storm, her daredevil brother Johnny "Red" Storm and fighting senator Ben "Rocky" Grimm. Together they faced Doctor Doomsday (Doomsday and Doctor Doom) , Galactiac (Brainiac and Galactus), and others.

Kesel seems to have a real affinity for this kind of thing. In the Fantastic Four Annual 1998, with art by Stuart Immomen, he has Ben Grimm visit an alternate universe where, instead of having been formed roughly ten years before, the Fantastic Four first got their powers in 1961. This is a Marvel Universe that operates in real time, and in which Franklin Richards is now a grown man with a child of his own on the way (married to a character first introduced in Roger Stern's "Monster Hunters" mentioned above, btw), Johnny Storm and his wife Crystal have a teenaged son and daughter, and Reed and Sue Richards have mostly retired from adventuring to concentrate on research. (Kesel's Marvels Comics: Fantastic Four, with collaborator Paul Smith, is also worth hunting down; supposedly a reproduction of an issue of the "Fantastic Four" comic published within the Marvel Universe, the licensed magazine mentioned so often by the characters back in the Lee and Kirby days.)

John Byrne has played with similar ideas in the past. In What If #36 he answered the question "What If the Fantastic Four had not gained their super-powers?" The answer?

They became the Challengers of the Unknown, naturally.

Later, in his all-too-brief Danger Unlimited, he played with the idea of a family-based quartet of superpowered adventurers in real time (though interestingly, here the model for the characters before getting their superpowers was not the Challengers of the Unknown, but instead Jonny Quest and company.)

Danger Unlimited
remains one of my favorite of Byrne's comics, and I've always thought it a shame that he never returned to the concept.

But what does all of this have to do with Secret Services, you might ask? Well, very little, to be honest. But it's this metafictional aspect of Section Zero that intrigued me, far more than the "occult investigation" business, I'll confess.

In that post early last year I mentioned above, I talked a bit about the influence that Section Zero had on me. To avoid repeating myself, I'll just quote myself instead.
With someone as obsessed with Wold Newton-type stuff as I am, Challenger and Wildman were names to conjure with. The clear suggestion in Section Zero is that Doc Challenger is the grand-daughter of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger. And with that being the case, how much of a leap would it be to assume Sam Wildman is some relation to James Clarke Wildman, Jr. (better known as Doc Savage)? There were scattered references to challenging the "unknown", and facing the "fantastic," which served not only to evoke the Jack Kirby series Challengers of the Unknown and the Fantastic Four which served as the comic's inspiration, but also offered the tantalizing suggestion that the Section Zero teams in past decades might have themselves served as the "real world" inspirations for the "fictional" teams Kirby and collaborators depicted in the comics. (That makes sense in my head; does it make sense out in the world?)

In the end, unfortunately, the series only ran for three of the projected six issues, along with a five page preview that ran in another title. And while in those issues we only got the barest glimpse at the backstory Kesel and Grummett had worked up for the team, it was clear fairly quickly that I was reading too much into off-hand references, and that the series would have headed in very different directions than I'd originally anticipated.

So the comic in my head was nothing like the one that I ended up reading. So what? In a writer's world, nothing is wasted, not even idle thoughts. I had just started work on one of the early Bonaventure-Carmody stories, those featuring J.B. Carmody and the team at the Carmody Institute, and as those stories developed, bits and pieces of the thing I'd
thought Kesel's book was going to develop into crept in, gradually. I liked the idea of making a character's figurative antecedents his literal ancestors, which is how J.B. Carmody ended up being the grandson of the very-James-Bondish Jake Carmody, the grandson of the somewhat Doc-Savage-like Rex "King" Carmody, and the great-nephew of the vaguely Tarzan-esque Lord John Carmody. The Bonaventure side of the family (the "B" in "J.B.") developed later on, along somewhat different lines. And in short order JB Carmody's story resembled not at all the idea I'd originally had in mind for it, either. And so it goes...
And there you have it. In any event, backissues of Section Zero can be found without too much difficulty (Mile High has them on discount), and they're well worth picking up, if you don't mind the frustration of being left with only tantalizing glimpses of what might have been.


Sometimes that "tantalizing glimpse of what might have been" is enough, like reading Alan Moore's 1963 comics, they give us parts of the whole, our imagination fills in the rest, maybe even inspires us. That is the beauty of a popular literature and comics, it is ephemeral, transient even, yet, paradoxically, it continues.
Sorry that was a little more philosophical and, well, meta, than I expected, but books, characters, authors and readers all talk amongst themselves, as you already know....
You make an excellent point, Greg!
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